This version of The Forever War contains an intro by Scalzi. In it he basically talks about how he somehow avoided reading TFW when it first came out and it’s a good thing because he would have done Old Man’s War differently. He mentions that lots of fans and haters assumed he stole from Haldeman. I DON’T see it. At. All. Starship Troopers – that’s different. A case can be made that Scalzi updated Starship Troopers for OMW. (That, of course, is unfair to Scalzi and the creativity that went into OMW….I’m just saying if you’re going to be making “plot stealing” comparisons….that’s a much better one).
Anyway, as I mentioned in my Starship Troopers review, I’d read somewhere that The Forever War was a response to Starship Troopers shaped by the following generation’s war experiences. While Heinlein does a pretty fair job of describing the perils of war – being a named character does not save you from death – it’s still presented as a noble and great endeavor. It’s what makes you worthy of citizenship. For Haldeman, a Vietnam vet, war based on a draft is a pointless drain on society’s best and even worse if it’s all for a stupid reason. Vietnam vets were also the first vets post Civil War that came home to a society that hated and resented them.
Unlike ST in which Juan Rico signs up for the space army, our protagonist is conscripted by a law that drafts those with the highest IQs to join the military. We jump in on an already demoralized group in bootcamp. The characters are smoking joints just to make it through basic. Then they go to the next level of training in which people die in stupid ways as they get used to their new mechs – unlike ST’s mechs where a handful of people die as they are climbing a mountain.
Mr. Haldeman took advantage of something we see most space SF ignore in order to get at the reason that the soldiers had so much trouble re-integrating into society. Because the soldiers were traveling at relativistic speeds, they spent 2 years fighting a war to come back to an Earth that had aged forward 50 or so years. Lots had changed, and not for the better. When Haldeman was writing crime was increasing and it was pretty reasonable for him to create the parody of crime extrapolating out. And as the war goes on, each time our main character makes it back to a human planet so much time has passed that at the end I think a thousand years has passed since he started the mission. His last mission he even had trouble speaking with those under his command as English had changed so much. I also really enjoyed how it messed with the strategy of running a war. I don’t know if this happened in reality in Vietnam because the jungle setting messed with war comms, but it was crazy the troops would be sent on a mission hoping it was still relevant 400 years later when they arrived. (Not to mention not knowing what tech the enemy would have)
The only thing I found odd was the Haldeman’s ever-growing proxy for how much things were changing had to do with homosexuality. I GUESS it’s because people being open about it was just starting in the 60s and 70s? So most of his readers would have identified with our main character being increasingly alienated as it became the norm, then mandated, and so on. To me, reading in 2017 it just seems weird to be so fixated on that. (And it even ends up being a huge plot point in his final mission)
Of course, the biggest FU to the society that had forced him and his generation to Vietnam was the ending of the book. (view spoiler)[It is revealed that the war was a sham. When colonists started disappearing after using a little understood physics phenomenon – the collapsar – they assumed it must be aliens attacking them. So the first time they saw aliens, they attacked and started a thousand year war that wrecked human lives and human societies. They killed and were killed by the thousands. In the end the war was completely pointless. Once humanity evolves a hive mind, they can speak with the hive mind Taurans and the war abruptly ends. It makes the especially brutal final fight especially pointless. (hide spoiler)]
Overall, I thought the book was a GREAT read and a much needed difference in tone to the typical space military novel. Sure, they can’t all be like this – sometimes you want to read a “ra ra go humans” novel. But I think something like this is important to read once in a while. SF helps us explore our world through distance in time or place and I think this book remains extremely relevant. In some ways it’s even more relevant. While the lack of a draft means that anyone in the military signed up to be there, the smaller percentage of the population means that they get ignored and treated like crap when they come back physically and mentally damaged. There may be a next gen Haldeman out there waiting to update this sub-genre of the space military SF.